Fluid/ity drag artists become subject of Wayne Sables’ latest documentary

By Vicky Prior 

If lockdown has been a drag for you, then Wayne Sable’s latest documentary will be just your sort of thing. Following Doncaster based drag family Zehaus, Fluid/ity charts the artistic development of four drag queens over the course of 18 months. Also featured is one drag king. The film explores, subverts and celebrates drag culture, gender identity and sexuality.

I’m horribly biased towards this documentary. Fluid/ity, where the film takes its name, is also the name of the drag nights that Zehaus runs. Although I’ve yet to attend in person, I avidly watch all of the queens in online shows and have regularly corresponded with them over the course of the pandemic. But truly, the documentary is a wonderful piece of work and I’d urge everyone to see it. What follows in this blog is my views on what makes Fluid/ity so good, and a Q and A with Wayne Sables that reveals insights into his creative process and inspiration.

The thing about Fluid/ity is that they aren’t just pretty people in glitzy costumes. They’re powerful and serious activists, working to carve out a safe space for the LGBT community in Doncaster. The success of Wayne’s documentary is that he doesn’t shy away from the negative attitudes still expressed towards drag acts and gay people in general, but also highlights the enormous positive impact of what the queens do. Zehaus is made up of four drag queens, performed by two gay black cis men one white cis woman and one white non binary woman (Bipolar Abdul states her sexuality as bi or pan, while Anna Popp’s is not mentioned.) The point here is that for Eboni Whyte and Naomi Carter, they face day to day prejudice for being black, for being openly gay, and then on top of that, for being drag queens. Meanwhile Bipolar and Anna face prejudice each day for being women, and then prejudice for being drag queens. Although this isn’t mentioned in the film, the two women would also face prejudice from some areas of the drag community, for being cis women who perform as queens. Currently, and in my opinion unfairly, neither Bipolar nor Anna would be eligible to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the TV show generally credited with bringing drag into the mainstream.

All of the queens agree that they are able to express different facets of their own personalities when in drag, and it seems that ease of expression has become a therapy in their non-drag lives. I was reminded of Beyoncé and her Sasha Fierce persona, or Megan Thee Stallion and Tina Snow. Interestingly, the public has willingly accepted these female music stars having more outrageous alter egos, far more easily than many people would accept drag personas, even though the core elements – louder, sexier, more confident, are the same.

Zehaus used to have a drag king as part of the group. Donny Lad is a popular regular on the local drag scene, and features in the documentary. Fans of the family will know that Donny Lad no longer performs with the others, but fear not, there’s no scandal here. As lockdown hit and the isolated artists developed their styles, it became clear to all that Donny, who pairs a cheeky laddishness with popular tunes, was going in a very different direction. The documentary sensitively deals with his departure.

Q and A with Wayne Sables

The best person to tell you about this film is its maker and the stars. What follows is a Q and A with Wayne Sables, with some input at the end on what Eboni Whyte and Bipolar Abdul got from the experience.

Q: Who came up with the idea for the documentary?

A: The documentary was my idea. I overheard a story as I was in Cast (our local theatre) café around a drag act in Doncaster that were doing really bizarre and interesting things. I did some research and discovered Fluid/ity and asked them if they fancied letting me make a documentary about them. They agreed and we spent 18 months together.

Q: Why did you want to be involved?

A: I grew up in Doncaster and had a very specific version of what it was. Fluid/ity was so far removed from that which interested me.  For me they represent a counterculture and an alternative space where people can come together, be themselves, be safe, without the worry of being judged or victimised.

Q: What did you learn from making Fluid/ity?

A: When making a documentary for me it’s really important to create an honest portrait of what I’m filming. Of course I’m very aware I’m viewing it through my eyes. I aim to remain as objective as possible. I learned that it’s important to let the action unfold and not to be too involved so as to remain neutral. I learned that Doncaster is a really rich vibrant place with amazing people doing amazing things.   

The documentary is self-funded and is 30 minutes long so it was challenging to know what footage to select and what story to tell, as I collected around 8/9 hours of footage. 

Q: What filming and editing techniques did you use?

A: When we agreed to make this documentary I was very clear that I wanted it to be almost like a fly-on-the-wall style. I didn’t want to put my stamp on the footage, or have too much input into the content. So where possible I tried to blend into the background which is incredibly difficult if you know Fluid/ity because they’re really open people and actually when we were out filming in public they made my presence known to the crowds which in hindsight really helped.

In terms of editing the documentary one of the challenges was to pull out the story that I wanted to tell, again without trying to dictate too much. It’s incredibly challenging and of course there’s always your own creative input because I’m making a choice of what is viewed and what is shown. What I try to do is let the story come out and tell itself so throughout the documentary there are a couple of themes that are addressed and I hope that they come across in Fluid/ity’s  own voices.

Q: What do you hope the documentary will achieve?

A: My hope for the film is that it opens people’s perceptions and gives people the opportunity to question their beliefs. And if they know someone that is out in the LGBTQ community they may become an ally. 

I’ve submitted the film to several international film festivals so hopefully the film will have a wider audience than Doncaster and shine a light on our town. 

I’d love to get a distribution deal and get the film on to a mainstream channel. 

Q: Any fun backstage stories or favourite moments from filming?

A: On the first day of filming I walked into the space where the group were getting ready and one of them rather casually looked up at me and said who’s the accountant? If you know me you know I look the opposite of what an accountant looks like. It’s very difficult to be outrageous when you’re with Fluid/ity. 

One of my favourite moments was during the live shows Anna Popp constantly kept drawing the audience’s attention to myself and she took the mess out of me. This was sort of an initiation into the group as it meant she and they felt comfortable with me being there. 

I definitely plan to do a second documentary with the group in the future.

The drag queens react

It’s clear Zehaus are incredibly proud of the documentary. I asked them how they felt about working with Wayne and what their highlights were. Both Bipolar and Eboni enjoyed educating Wayne about queer culture and drag performances. It was great to hear from Eboni that “Wayne was open minded and respectful at all points and did a great job of making us feel comfortable at all times”. I have to agree with Bipolar who says that her “favourite parts of the documentary are the solo interviews as you get a real insight into who we all are and why we’re doing this”. I thought I knew a fair amount about the group but I definitely learned some new things.

Fluid/ity will have a public showing soon, keep checking this blog and Wayne’s Instagram for more details.

If you want to watch the full documentary it’s available on Vimeo on Demand via the link https://vimeo.com/ondemand/353123